April 27, 2006
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One of the comments brought up when we workshopped my story yesterday was the value of subtext in dialogue. Dialogue’s great to use, it really moves stories along and gives you a flavor of the person, but it can be constructed in such a way as to reveal even more about the person. As a crude example, I would have had the mean kids say to the main character’s friend, “Why are you hanging out with this trash? You’re better than him.” A more effective line would be to have them say, “Hey, Jeff, wanna go to the park?” (or something similar). There’s subtext there: the main character is being deliberately excluded, and the reasons are left to the reader’s imagination. It feels more authentic.
This was a function (I think) of the story being an early draft. I was mostly concerned with getting the story on the page and wasn’t really inhabiting the skin of the characters. In going through the scenes, again using the above example, I just wanted to establish that the mean kids don’t like the main character but that they do like (or have the potential to like) his friend, and wanted to put that in dialogue. So one major step in the rewrite is to go through carefully and think about what each character is thinking as they’re talking.
What I wanted to communicate, I guess, is that you don’t add subtext by saying, “Hm, how can I add some subtext to this dialogue?” You add it by understanding the character, knowing what he or she is thinking, and figuring out what he or she would realistically say in that situation. Moments of frankness do happen, but they are rare and should be focal points in the story.